Article MT164, part 25 - newly written for MT.

The Bold Pirate

A study of a relatively scarce broadside ballad

The great majority of broadside ballads that have survived in oral tradition can be found in the stock lists of the majority of street literature printers all over the British Isles, so that many were printed in numerous forms over a wide area.  It struck me then that we could gain some useful insight by studying a ballad that was scarce in print and also relatively scarce, but far-travelled, in oral tradition.  Many of the more widely printed ballads (not all by any means) existed in virtually the same form all over Britain for at least a century and as one would expect such pieces, e.g., The Dark-eyed Sailor, do not vary a great deal in oral tradition.

One ballad that seemingly meets our chosen criteria is The Bold Pirate (Laws K30, Roud 984).  Only one printed version is currently extant, that printed c1843-55 by J Scott of Pittenweem in Fife [See Bodleian Broadside Ballads website, Firth c 12(64)].  There are at least seven oral versions extant and readily accessible from the following sources:

On the face of it then we have a ballad printed on the east coast of Scotland which apparently hasn't survived in oral tradition in Scotland, but turns up not surprisingly on the eastern seaboard of North America in an area heavily settled by Scots immigrants.  But what was it doing on the south coast of England within a twenty mile radius of Bournemouth?  A closer analysis presents a probable answer.  Oral versions from both areas contain two half stanzas not on the Scottish broadside and there is nothing in the ballad to suggest it ever had anything to do with Scotland, indeed it is firmly set in Bristol.  Everything points to another broadside(s) containing at least nine-and-a-half stanzas.

Another question that arises: Is the ballad based to some extent on a real event?  It is usually possible to easily differentiate the pirate ballads that are based on real events from those that are not.  The real event ones usually name the ships and captains involved along with several accompanying verifiable details, even if this is sometimes corrupted by oral tradition, e.g., The Bold Princess Royal, (Laws K29, Roud 528).  The fictional ones generally contain lots of flowery romantic description and have little to do with reality, e.g., I'm Afloat written by Eliza Cook.  Both types are common on broadsides.  Our ballad here is quite plausible, being full of statistics, but the broadside names no ships or captains and for other reasons my own personal instinct is that it is pure fiction. 

In a study like this, giving the full texts of all eight versions would involve much pointless repetition and I have found that a collated text with sources clearly indicated is much more useful in observing the overall picture if followed by a close comparative analysis of all texts.  The bulk of this collated text is from the Scottish broadside, with the sixth stanza split to become the first halves of two stanzas from the oral versions as they consistently present them.  The second half of stanza six below is found in versions A, D and E, and the second half of stanza seven below is found in versions A and D.  The half stanza on the end is found as here in version A but where it exists in other versions it has become shunted onto the second half of the previous stanza.  Shunting of this sort is common in such broadside ballads and oral tradition.  Sometimes it occurs due to lapse of memory and sometimes due to deliberate rewriting by broadside hacks.  In this case probably memory and oral tradition are the factors as the shunting though fairly consistent does vary and is largely confined to the final four stanzas.

Now follows a stanza by stanza comparative analysis using all versions.  As previously stated all versions containing stanza one give the date of setting sail and no version has the same date as another.  The only other significant point to make here is that the dates range from 12th March to 21st August, all summer months when the weather might be expected to be reasonable, a significant consideration when so many ships were lost to bad weather in earlier centuries.  The port of embarkation is consistently Bristol in all versions.  Half of the versions do not mention the wind direction, but the south westerly of the broadside would make at least the first part of the cruise somewhat difficult in reality as the journey down the Bristol Channel would have meant some serious tacking, being due south west.  The other three versions give a much more favourable wind of WNW (A and B) and NNW (F).  Most versions have the comparative speed of the boats as three to one in favour of the pirate, but two versions (A and E) give two to one.  No version offers an explanation directly for this but the superior firepower and manpower of the pirate imply she is a larger vessel.  In most versions as in the broadside the Bristol vessel has been cruising 'that livelong day' whilst two of the Canadian versions (E and G) extend this to 'three long months'.  These two versions seem to be closely related as they correlate much more than other versions, e.g., where other versions speak of meeting up with a bold, saucy or warlike pirate, both of these versions describe this as meeting with 'a large and lofty ship'.  In some ways the latter makes more sense as they don't know she is a pirate until they have spoken her.

The second stanza only has a few minor differences of syntax consistent with oral variation, but it does present us with one interesting mishearing: The 'on a cruise was bound' in line six becomes in other versions 'on our course was bound' (A, B and D) and 'all our crew are bound' (G).

In stanza three the only significant variation concerns the pirate's command to 'lie to'.  The broadside in line three has the pirate demanding 'Haul up your fore and main courses' and most oral versions give an equivalent demand, but significantly the three Canadian versions only refer to a single mast, 'Come wind/round your fore yards round/to your mast' (E and G) and 'Come bank up your maintopsail, boys' which could possibly reflect that the Canadian singers were more familiar with smaller vessels.

The fourth stanza contains the statistics on the personnel and armaments of the Bristol ship.  The number of guns ranges from 15 in the broadside to 29 in Keech's Dorset version (B) and this version as in D and G has them bound in brass.  The 'three hundred men of courage stout and bold' is consistent in all but Keech's version which reduces it to one hundred.  We are therefore looking at a frigate, RN or privateer, but with no attempt to name her or the captain.  She is more likely a privateer as Bristol was not a naval base, though it is possible she was RN and just being fitted out and provisioned there.  If a privateer she was effectively little different in international status to the so-called pirate, both being in the commercial business of capturing foreign vessels, selling on the vessels and cargo and ransoming any captives.  This is despite the romantic patriotic description, 'men of courage stout and bold, that values more their honour, than a miser of his gold.' The real motivation is described in stanza eight.

Stanza five sees the pirate addressing his men and encouraging them with having superior ordnance and manpower.  He has five hundred men in all five versions that have this stanza.  His battery varies from twenty to forty guns, in most versions roughly half as many again as the Bristol ship, slightly more in the broadside.  Again, even with superior force, the pirate is likely a frigate, if somewhat larger.  Further encouragement is given by the pirate reminding his men that if they fail they will hang.

Stanzas six and seven I deal with together as in the broadside they have been compressed into a single stanza.  These two stanzas concern a first wave boarding party of pirates and then a second wave.  Comparison stanza by stanza from this point onwards is made more difficult as half stanzas in most versions have migrated and become attached to different other half stanzas in various combinations.  This 'shunting' is fairly common and not always just the result of poor memory and oral tradition as broadside hacks also used it to condense longer ballads into shorter ones.  Also in oral tradition when memory loss affects the elements of a ballad it is more likely to be stanzas in the latter half of a ballad that are likely to be affected.  How often have collectors been frustrated when recording an old ballad being recalled from a singer's youth, when the singer reaches a point and can give no further part of the ballad?  So it comes as no surprise when the first boarding party varies from as low as ten men (B) right up to the full five hundred (F).  The oral versions that include the second wave more often simply report it as 'with the remainder of his men'.  In all versions both boarding parties are invariably slaughtered by boarding pike and cutlass.  Of interest in Elliott's stanza six (A) is the pirate's striking of the Bristol ship's 'blue silk ensign' which in version D becomes 'our ensign flag, thinking our royal ship to take', 'royal' replacing 'warlike' in Elliott's version.  Version E has the Bristol crew hoisting their 'blue silks'.

In stanza eight the broadside (cannon) given by the now dominant Bristol ship is changed from the less well-known 'broadside of canister' to simply 'a broadside from our warlike ship' (A) or 'from a rounded gun' (D) and has become garbled to 'broadside gripe' in F which may be an echo of 'grapeshot' as grapeshot or canister would serve to rake the decks and rigging and prevent the pirate from escaping.  On boarding the pirate ship they find the pirate captain has both legs off up to his thighs, in some versions his knees and in E just one leg is so afflicted.  It is worth noting the common usage of rhyming the last syllable of 'immediately' with 'thigh(s)', though in D and F this has been avoided by changing 'thigh' to 'knees', and in E and G by changing 'immediately' to 'to our great surprise' to rhyme with 'thighs'.

Stanza nine presents us with the probability that the broadside ballad is taken from oral tradition in that in lines one and two the garbled word 'foret' is obviously meant to be either 'forward' as given in A, or 'for it' as given in E and G and implied in F.  The 'three hundred chests of gold' are in most versions exaggerated even further to five hundred.  Whereas in the broadside their cruise consistently takes them back to Bristol in a day's cruise, equally consistently E and G take three long months to return, but all versions are consistent in ending up at Bristol Quay with their prize.

The half stanza that concludes the ballad in the broadside and A has in E, F and G become attached to the second half of stanza nine and where this has occurred the first half of stanza nine has been shunted back onto the second half of stanza eight.  Ballads that conclude with a half stanza are unusual but there are other examples to be found on broadsides.  The only significant variation in this stanza is that E and G in line three have 'bid adieu to the old Belle Flew/Bellflow' which are very likely corruptions of 'Bellefleur' and equally likely the name of a local ship to the Canadian east coast where they were recorded.  However a French name for a British warship would not be unusual as a large part of the British fleet consisted of captured enemy ships and they didn't always bother to change the name.  Also many captured prizes were sold on to become privateers themselves.  (See below)

I sent the above draft to my good friend, Les Ward, of Hull, as he is an authority on all things concerning maritime encounters of this sort.  He also was of the opinion that it was a generic piece but for quite different reasons.  Firstly, the ratio of guns to men on each vessel does not match the usual one of somewhere around 6 to 8 men per gun, the nearest ratio of the Bristol vessel being Elliott's 11-1 as with the Maine version (A and D); and the nearest pirate vessel ratio is again Elliott with 12½-1.  The rest of the versions are way out with the ratio.  The broadside version also falls down on giving an odd number of guns for both vessels.  For balance if nothing else all warships had the same number of guns on both sides until the Russian War of the mid nineteenth century, and privateering had been outlawed by then anyway.  Again the Elliott version has both vessels with an even number of guns, which if nothing else tells us that that version is more plausible than the others.

In conclusion, the ballad is very much in the broadside ballad tradition, occupying the hazy area between describing a real event and being pure fiction.  It certainly has a lot of generic elements; on the other hand it is very plausible, comparable with real event pirate ballads like The Bold Princess Royal and Kelly the Pirate (Laws K31, Roud 529).

The lack of personal names, the mention of walking the plank and the three hundred chests of gold for me tip it into the realms of fiction, but a very singable and listenable ballad in my opinion, and it may well turn out to be a remnant of a longer earlier ballad.

Dungbeetle - 4.5.11

If anyone can add information to the above or dispute any of the opinions expressed please email Rod, as he has very kindly offered to add any new information to any of the Dungheap articles.

New information

Steve wonders why it is that the song turns up predominantly on the Canadian eastern seaboard and along or near the south coast of England.  For Joseph Elliott, at least, the link between these two areas is clear.

In about 1850, when he was around 19 years old, he signed on as a fisherman in the Newfoundland cod fishing industry, sailing out from Dartmouth with about 60 other men (mainly men from Dorset).  He was out there for 3 or 4 years, and told the Hammond brothers that that was where he learned his songs.  Possibly he heard it from one of the many Scots who settled there.

Joseph Elliott was one of many from the south and south-west who went to sea for a short period, then returned to work as agricultural labourers for the rest of their working lives.  Some of the other singers from the southern counties who sang The Bold Pirate may have done the same, or may have heard the song from someone who had.

John Shaw - 5.5.11

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